Any kind of natural disaster has the potential to be an emotional strain on the family as the feeling of despair sets in. Forest fires that overtake whole communities, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods can all wreak havoc on the human psyche. These calamities however, hardly keep people grounded for long periods, only forcing them to shelter in place for no more than a few days. The exception perhaps, would be flooding, which can maroon survivors for days until rescue can get to them. Now, a new reality has entered the realm of disaster survival, with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. This pestilence has changed the game on what it means to shelter at home.
With the closure of schools, and with many parents having been laid off or working from home, family relationships are being tested like never before. While there is undoubtedly the reality of wide-scale pre-existing family-based conflict, there is no doubt that the Covid-19 has imposed additional family dynamics which could and have impacted in-house relationships. Ashley Abramson’s APA article on “How COVID-19 may increase domestic violence and child abuse” affirms that “National crises ramp up stress among couples and families.” This increased stress can manifest itself in damaging ways within families. As Abramson stated, one such manifestation is the increase in domestic violence. A general concern that I can see is the reality of increased in-house conflict overall, just simply due to more people having to be in the same space for much longer times than normal. Lack of adequate funds, cabin fever, impatience at having to be an untrained and ill-prepared homeschool teacher and bread-winner concurrently, and just having to adjust to a never-before experienced normal chaos can be overwhelming, leading to short tempers and frequent fights. I refer to this as Covid-conflict.
Covid-conflict is not an emphasis on pre-existing family conflict, but on the increased regularity and intensity of conflict, regardless of when the conflict originated. My focus is on the way family conflict may have changed for the worse, rather than on the existence of conflict itself. Many people are at home, probably feeling “trapped” (under these restrictive circumstances) in close confines with people they regularly feud with, and without the usual “escape” activities of school and work to give them “deliverance” from their personal or family problems. At least, when family members are at school and work, they managed to pretend that they’re okay for several hours a day. Now, they’re forced to constantly be around the people who give them the most grief.
Sadly, this is the reality in many households, more than would perhaps be admitted. The question that this article seeks to answer, is “how can family members survive corona-conflict at home?” I’d like to suggest some steps for consideration. These steps are based on the assumption that individuals who try them are interested in experiencing a transformation of their broken or unpleasant family relationship.
STEP ONE – Ask Yourself: “Could this be a good time to change the relational narrative of your family?”
The Covid-19 pandemic is many bad things. One good think that it is however, is the opportunity to reflect on life in general and on specific life-changing opportunities in particular. Some will process during this shutdown how to start their own business because they’ve felt the pain of being laid off from their job. Others may think about the importance of writing their will and even making sure they have a living will and other such instruments in place, after reflecting on the suddenness of the viral attack and the speed of death, with the victims usually being alone and out of the reach of family members. There are those who may think about their need to purchase life insurance or increase their coverage amount upon seeing how many have died, rather quickly, leaving many surviving spouses and children in a state of financial uncertainty.
Feuding family members may want to ask “is this a good time to change the narrative of the kind of relationships that we have as a family?” Spending so much more time in the same physical space does not necessarily translate into better quality relationships. In fact, it could very well be a catalyst for worsening already broken relationships or even triggering new family conflicts where there was previously none. How can the narrative be changed for the better? Is this a good opportunity? There’s a “captive” audience at home, so to speak. Do you have the desire, the courage, the determination? Do you think that the other family member or members would be interested? Maybe you haven’t thought about it with this degree of intentionality before, or maybe you haven’t done so in a long time?
STEP TWO – Assuming that you’ve concluded that this is a good opportunity, develop a plan of approach
Breaking the ice with someone that you’re in conflict with can be a nerve-wracking experience. There’s the fear of rejection, to begin with. This fear is very real and not unfounded whatsoever. No one knows for sure how the other person might respond or react to their effort to repair a strained or broken relationship. The typical approaches to problem-solving usually revolve around a need to “talk about the problem.” Think about it for a minute. When someone approaches you to discuss a challenge, they usually start with just that… the problem. It makes you tense, correct? You feel that way because you don’t know what they’re going to say to you next. You feel anxiety building, and you’re ready to defend yourself by clamming shut or pushing back against what you may feel slighted by. The person you plan to approach may feel just like you do when you’re the one being approached.
Another fear therefore, is the fear of escalation of the conflict that you desire to bring to an end. Again, there’s just no way of knowing what may occur from one moment to another in these situations, especially without the assistance of a trained third-party mediator to help facilitate a more structured, even-handed grievance and dispute settlement process [Class Act Consulting & Seminars offers these services to assist families with their conflict resolution needs]. There may also be other factors that could be prohibitive when contemplating making a move to conclude conflict and restore a relationship. For now, however, I will move on to suggest a few ways to get the peace-seeking, relationship-repairing conversation going, with emphasis on not merely attempting, but succeeding at this task.
A suggested plan of approach to surviving covid-conflict at home
1. A diplomatic approach is more effective than the typical direct approach
2. Be thoughtful of the other person’s feelings
3. Consider the importance of timing
STEP THREE – Implement Your Approach
Don’t initiate the approach by talking about the issue that is bothering you. You will have time to get to the issue… if you make the right moves at first. To approach by leading with the problem in an already conflicted relationship may only cause defensiveness as I stated before. You know this is so, because that is your typical approach and that is the typical reaction. If you are the lady of the house (this is not a suggestion regarding who should or may make the first move), one suggestion may be to make him a nice meal, or better yet, a favorite snack.
A snack is probably more impactful than the meal, since the meal is more “expected” as part of the daily routine. A snack is more “impromptu” and carries more meaning (diplomacy, remember?). When you present this delight, serve it with a simple “I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate you for… (whatever you say here, must be truthful and genuine).” No mention of the problem, just show some appreciation or give an affirmation… “You did a really good job with the yard work today.”
If you are the man of the house, one suggestion may be to bring her one of her favorite treats or comfort foods from the refrigerator or pantry. Give an affirmation or a word of appreciation. Whether you are the mister or the misses, make no mention of any issues hastily. Pausing at first from the mention of issues gives you a chance to evaluate your eventual mention of what you’d like to discuss. Waiting helps to regulate your adrenaline levels and your heart rate. The calmer you are, the better the discussion will be. Remember, the goal is to work on settling the difference, not the score. This is like throwing fuel on the existing fire. The main point here is to be diplomatic, not direct. Ease into it, versus brute-forcing your way into it.
Be Thoughtful of The Other Person’s Feelings
Remember that your goal is to win the other person back into relationship, not win a fight. Think carefully about what your goal and even your real motive is. You will not win a fight and the relationship. You will lose one or both! Guaranteed!
One of the things we don’t do very well is think about other people’s feelings. We allow our anger and resentment to shut down our rational brain and rely on our unreliable emotions to guide us in times of conflict. Often, we think about what we should have done after the fact, when regret kicks in after we start having to deal with the consequences of a botched attempt to get the better of the other person. Then the rational brain clearly shows that our temper-driven reaction was nothing more than an exercise in futility.
Consider the Importance of Timing
This has been alluded to earlier, but cannot be overstated in this piece. There is no foolproof way of knowing when is the best time to bring up a matter. The fact is that you simply don’t have any guarantees that the time you choose is the best time and that your efforts will be received as you intended. What I recommend in this regard is that you focus on making sure that YOU are ready, emotionally and otherwise to be on your best conflict conduct possible. You are not emotionally driven, there is no desire for revenge, and you have calmly weighed the matter at hand before proceeding.
Surviving corona-conflict has to be based on near-precise timing, because if you fail dismally at this, the after-effects could be rather unpleasant in a shelter-at-home environment. There is no escape! Don’t wait for issues to fester and become toxic, but be careful not to act impulsively either. Keep in mind too, that a sour relationship in the house will probably affect even those not directly involved in the issue… such as the kids. Definitely keep them in mind.
You probably want to wait until after dinner to calmly discuss your concerns. Bringing up issues during dinner is simply not the best time. Don’t wait until bedtime. Folks who need their sleep don’t appreciate being stressed out with conflict issues just before they retire… or worse yet, when they’re already in the bed (caveat: if this works for you and your mate, then fine. If it has not worked, don’t keep insisting on doing it at this time).
Maybe going for a walk together after dinner, with the level of privacy it provides away from the house is a good way to start the discussion. Know your partner though, to be comfortable with any approach you decide to use. Even then, how you use language to introduce and present your concerns, will also be a factor in how this all turns out. This will be the subject of a later “Conflict Choices” blog article.
A soft (gentle) answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.Proverbs 15:1 (NKJV)
I am currently working on an evidence-based system that equips participants to de-escalate inter-personal conflict within 30 seconds. The feedback from those who have trained in the trial phase of the program has been phenomenal! Keep watching this page for updates.
In the end, what you want to do in any situation of addressing conflict issues is to ensure that you do your best to make things better. You cannot determine or guarantee how another person will choose to act or react to conflict matters. You only have that responsibility and authority over yourself. It is therefore incumbent upon you to be the best that you can be!
All the best to you, as you navigate the viral pandemic… and any resulting covid-conflict in your home.
Dr. Everton A. Ennis is Founder and President of Class Act Consulting & Seminars, and author of “From Holy Hell to Hallelujah Again: Surviving the Consuming Flames of Congregational Conflict“
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